"Blue Swede, 1973 – that song belongs to me!" protests Star Lord in the first Guardians Of The Galaxy, when his Walkman and Awesome Mix Tape are stolen by the prison guard. That's exactly how I feel about music – and it's also the reason I will never love music streaming.
Don't get me wrong, I do stream music. I like Spotify – its user-friendliness and increasingly clever features, plus its huge potential for music discovery – but I don't think I'll ever fully embrace it or any other streaming platform as a go-to source.
My reasons (although they could) have nothing specifically to do with the quality of streamed music files, artist payments, hi-fi snobbery, Luddism or fear of an AI planet.
It's that even the supreme convenience of being able to stream anything at any time for a nominal sub, at even the highest quality, is still no substitute for curating my own lovingly acquired music collection for my personal listening pleasure.
Let's get physical
Sure, you can curate your own music on a streaming platform. My kids constantly point this out to me, rolling their eyes so far back in their heads that their eyeballs squeak, with my teenage son even referring to everyone else but me as "modern people" when we were discussing this very topic. But I still insist that it's not the same. What it comes down to, for me, is that I've spent most of my life collecting music – so much so that it's a big part of who I am.
I'm not just talking about physical, tactile formats. Yes, I have a sizeable vinyl collection, and boxes and boxes of CDs in my attic, having now burned the digital files to hard-drive. I’ve bought plenty of MP3s too – and it's all lovingly collected on a hard drive. It's not exactly something I can physically pick up and sniff (or any of the other things you can do to admire a vinyl record), but it still exists in a place that I've put it. And my entire collection of digital music also sits, ready to be played, on a music player, at my convenience.
Now, 'modern people', like my What Hi-Fi? compadre Lewis Empson, who explains here why he loves Spotify's social features, talk about the platform's recommendations a bit like it's a sort of friendly robot mate who's doing us a massive favour. But go back a few years to when people used to make and swap mix-tapes, they were lovingly made by people who knew me (actually knew me, not via an algorithm), understood my tastes, and whose recommendations I appreciated because they were, well, actual friends. And having listened to those 'taster' mixtape tracks – and contrary to fears that home taping would kill the record biz – I'd save up and go and buy the album from which a particularly good recommendation was taken.
Together with those trusted recommendations from friends, listening to radio, reading the music press and books, seeing bands live and even looking stuff up on YouTube and the internet has resulted in a precisely crafted and shaped collection of music, that I continue to add to with both new and old tracks as I discover and love them. It's like my musical DNA, where Spotify feels like borrowing someone else's identity for three or four minutes at a time. I may be being precious here, but I just don't feel the same connection with the music if just anyone can hear it, without having put in the work I have.
Undoubtedly Spotify is clever. But honestly I'd be quite happy if the technology had stopped at the iPod Shuffle. That blew my mind 20 years ago when I realised that at home or in the car I could just randomise my entire record collection of tens of thousands of songs, hundreds of albums and artists.
It's a lot of tunes – though not, of course, compared with Spotify's catalogue. But that itself presents too much choice – with the almost-entire history of recorded music available to stream, ask me to 'put on some music' and I'll open the app and stare blankly at the search bar. Then my eyes will be drawn to something Spotify has decided I'll like, because it senses my confusion. Bless its little AI socks – based on the popularity of related tracks, Spotify has put together a ’90s grunge playlist, because I played one Nirvana track last week.
But, what if I want deeper cuts? It's probably not going to point me towards lesser-known Seattle stalwarts Tad, is it? No, instead I get the Cranberries. However, if I scroll down the list of artists on my iPod, or thumb through my lovingly ordered vinyl collection, I will soon get to the beflannelled grunge rocker's totally awesome album 8-Way Santa, and that makes me happy – because I discovered it and bought it and made an effort to add it to my music collection years ago.
Once, a sizeable music collection was the epitome of sophistication and cool – and if you had the swishest hi-fi gear to play it on, even more so. That's why I am still righteously proud of my music, and why streaming will never quite elicit the same joy as picking tracks from what I (obviously) consider to be a cool and sophisticated stack of physical music. Music that is mine.
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